Sunak Pledges to Replace ‘Rip-off’ Degrees with Apprenticeships

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The Conservative Party has announced a bold initiative to scrap certain university courses in England, which they label as “rip-offs,” in order to fund 100,000 apprenticeships per year if they secure victory in the upcoming July election.

The proposed plan targets degrees with high drop-out rates and poor job prospects, with the aim of reallocating funds to support vocational training. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak criticised former Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair’s goal of sending half of young people to university, arguing it has resulted in an increase in low-value degrees.

In a press release, the Conservatives outlined their intention to introduce legislation empowering the Office for Students to shut down the poorest performing courses, judged by metrics such as drop-out rates, job progression, and future earnings potential. This follows last July’s government announcement to cap student numbers on courses failing to deliver good outcomes.

The Conservatives estimate that discontinuing these courses could save the government £910 million by 2030. This figure is based on the premise that students from underperforming courses would otherwise have lower earnings, leading to unpaid student debt that taxpayers ultimately cover. They project that 75% of students from these courses would transition into employment or apprenticeships.

Labour has criticised the government for overseeing a significant decline in new apprenticeships, with Shadow Education Secretary Bridget Phillipson calling the announcement “laughable.” She reiterated Labour’s plans to introduce technical excellence colleges and reform the apprenticeship levy to allow for more flexible training options.

The Liberal Democrats also condemned the current state of the apprenticeship system, with Education Spokeswoman Munira Wilson highlighting low pay and high drop-out rates as significant issues needing urgent reform.

Rachel Hewitt, CEO of MillionPlus, emphasised that apprenticeships and higher education should not be seen in opposition. She pointed out that modern universities already offer degree apprenticeships, which combine academic study with industry experience, allowing students to earn while they learn.

Despite the criticisms, the Conservative Party remains firm in its stance, projecting that the proposed savings would enable the government to invest £885 million into creating 100,000 additional apprenticeships annually by the end of the next parliament.

The number of new apprenticeships in England has seen a decline from 509,400 in 2015/16 to 321,400 in 2020/21, with a slight increase to 337,100 in 2022/23. However, drop-out rates remain a concern, with only 53.4% of apprentices completing their programmes in 2021/22, below the government’s target of 67% by the end of 2024/25.

Overall, the proposed “triple lock plus” plan aims to refocus educational funding towards vocational training and apprenticeships, addressing long-standing concerns about the value and outcomes of certain university degrees. The Conservatives are positioning this policy as a key element of their strategy to enhance job prospects and economic stability for future generations.

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